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Opinion

A better way to keep Islamists at bay in Mali

France says it will withdraw from Mali once an African peacekeeping force is in place. To keep Islamists at bay, the US is considering increasing its military presence in the region. A better approach is to focus on fixing the governance issues that fuel radicalism to begin with.

By John Campbell / February 5, 2013

A convoy of Malian troops makes a stop near Hambori in northern Mali, on the road to Gao, Feb. 4. Op-ed contributor Ambassador John Campbell writes: 'As Mali has shown, there is criminality and jihadism in the Sahel, but it has little to do with Osama bin Laden and much to do with the pervasive pattern of bad and abusive governance, too much of which America supports.'

Jerome Delay/AP

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As the French prepare to withdraw from Mali – at least for the time being – and turn over operations to a multinational African force, the Obama administration should not increase its military presence in the region by establishing a new military presence in Niger, possibly with drones. Instead, it should pressure the government in Mali’s capital, Bamako, to get its own house in order, to reach a political settlement with the Tuareg separatists in the north and thereby separate them from more radical elements which, if not destroyed, can be isolated in the trackless Sahara.

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America’s security-centric approach should be replaced by a greater US focus on improving governance and countering the corruption that fuels popular radicalism in the first place, rather than relying on security to confront shadowy international networks that appear to be founded more on crime than jihad.

The French and Malian forces have driven the Islamists out of the cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. But, rather than resisting the Franco-Malian onslaught, the Islamists are melting away into the mountains and deserts of the north where they may regroup and bide their time. Absent a political approach to the region’s longstanding grievances against Bamako, they may move south once again when the opportunity presents itself. Should the French withdraw too quickly, that could be soon.

France’s President François Hollande has pledged to Malians on his visit to Bamako last week: “We'll stay by your side as you address rebuilding in your nation.” Though France plans to keep troops in Mali until a UN-backed African military force can take over, already, the deployment of this force has been delayed due to supply and funding shortages. And any hiatus between French withdrawal and the establishment of a credible African multinational force will provide plenty of opportunity for Islamists to return and exploit frustrations with the Malian government.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al Dine, and other radical Islamic groups active in the Sahel region are disunited, often rivals, and compete for the control of criminal networks. They have been allied uneasily with much more moderate Tuaregs in northern Mali who seek autonomy or independence. While the uneasy alliance held the northern cities for nine months, it was inherently unstable.

The Islamist coalition included both Tuaregs and Arabs, who regard themselves as “white,” ruling over a population they regarded as “black.” Political maneuverings among those calling the shots amounted to little more than warlordism or competition among criminal syndicates. Even before the French drove the Islamists out of northern Mali’s cities, if there had been a credible government in Bamako, there is a chance the northern coalition would have collapsed under its own weight.

The withdrawal to the desert following the French intervention provides a new opportunity to win over the moderates in northern Mali and isolate the radicals. That requires a credible government in Bamako that addresses northern grievances and keeps its promises, especially with respect to the long-standing demand for genuine autonomy for the north.

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